Memorials to the victims of the 1916 Faversham Munitions Explosion

Overview

Heritage Category:
Listed Building
Grade:
II*
List Entry Number:
1261010
Date first listed:
27-Sep-1989
Date of most recent amendment:
24-Mar-2016
Statutory Address:
Faversham Cemetery, Love Lane, Faversham, Kent, ME13 8BJ

Map

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Location

Statutory Address:
Faversham Cemetery, Love Lane, Faversham, Kent, ME13 8BJ

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County:
Kent
District:
Swale (District Authority)
Parish:
Faversham
National Grid Reference:
TR0250360871

Summary

Memorial over the mass grave of the victims of the Faversham Munitions Explosion, 1916. A large free-standing stone recording the names of those buried elsewhere lies 0.5m to the east and is included in the listing.

Reasons for Designation

The memorial to the victims of the 1916 Faversham Munitions Explosion, which stands in Faversham Cemetery, is listed at Grade II* for the following principal reasons: * Historic interest: as an eloquent witness to the tragic impact of world events on this local community, and the sacrifice it has made in the First World War. The grave is the final resting place of the majority of the victims of the worst accident in the 450-year history of the British explosives industry; * Architectural interest: an understated memorial which through its simplicity and size reflects the enormity of this loss with great eloquence; * Degree of survival: the grave surround and central Celtic cross were set up soon after the committal, and have been little if at all changed since.

History

Faversham was home to England’s first gunpowder plant, set up in the C16. Among new manufactories set up there at the start of the First World War was the Explosives Loading Company, on a remote sea-marsh site at Uplees. It manufactured TNT charges for shells, torpedoes and mines. The high risk of explosion meant that many safety precautions were in place there. Employees could only smoke in mess rooms and all cigarette, pipes and matches had to be put in pigeon-holes when people arrived for work. All buttons were made of wood, as were tramway rails, to avoid the possibility of sparks. Horses had brass horseshoes for the same reason and women were not allowed metal hair grips. Buildings were well spaced out and made of wood, built without metal nails.

Building 833, a wooden shed on the site, was used to store 15 tons of TNT and 150 tons of ammonium nitrate. On 2 April 1916 a fire broke out there. The cause remains uncertain. There had been a small fire the day before, apparently caused by a spark from a boiler house – it had faulty spark arrestors – which had set fire to empty linen bags that had been filled with TNT and were waiting to be refilled. These bags may have smouldered and burst into flames again, although the subsequent inquiry into the disaster which reported on 17 April 1916 stated that fresh sparks from the boiler house had been the cause. The management was absolved of all blame.

Whatever precipitated the fire, the burning bags quickly set the shed ablaze. Despite the efforts of the works’ fire brigade and another from the nearby Cotton Powder Company which shared the site and manufactured nitro-glycerine products, the fire took hold. Workers rushed to move the heavy boxes of TNT; others frantically passed fire buckets hand-over-hand filled with water from the nearest dyke. Two hundred people, including the military, were involved, and the Faversham fire brigades were on their way. Notwithstanding those efforts, at 2.20pm three massive explosions blasted a crater the width of a football pitch and the depth of a house. The explosion killed at least 108 - leaving many bodies unrecognisable - and injured 64. Windows were shattered in Southend-on-Sea 15 miles away across the Thames estuary, Norwich over 100 miles away was shaken and the explosion was heard in France.

Government censorship and a press blackout – for fear of alerting the enemy - ensured that the disaster was barely reported and it remained one of the best kept secrets of the First World War. The explosion was, and remains, the worst accident in casualty terms in the 450-year history of the British explosives industry. Seventy-three of the victims were buried in a mass grave at Faversham’s Love Lane cemetery. The Cemetery Register records that only 34 could be recorded by name; the others could not be individually identified, the Register simply stating ‘a male person unknown.’ All the victims were men or boys – no women worked at the plant over the weekend - the oldest 61, the youngest 17. Thirty-five victims were buried elsewhere at the request of their families.

David Lloyd George, Minister of Munitions, and a quickly-formed government committee, produced a secret report that endorsed the findings of the initial inquiry. They were appalled at short-comings on the site and listed eight recommendations for improving safety. But they also recognized that wartime conditions with the factory working on permanent overtime to produce the maximum output of explosives meant that it was virtually impossible to follow normal peacetime rules. The devastated factory was quickly rebuilt and was soon back in full production.

The memorial was unveiled and dedicated on 27 September 1917 by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Randall Davidson.

Details

The mass grave is in the central part of the cemetery, oriented approximately north-south in alignment with the grid pattern walkways. The grave comprises a low, granite-kerbed enclosure, about 10m by 50m, with regular low piers with caps, and flights of steps at either end flanked by urn-topped piers. At the centre of the grave is a large free-standing Celtic cross raised on a three-stepped base.

The principal dedicatory inscription on the front face of the base reads SACRED TO THE/ MEMORY OF THE MEN/ WHO DIED IN THE SERVICE OF THEIR/ COUNTRY 2ND. APRIL 1916./ ‘FATHER IN THY GRACIOUS KEEPING/ LEAVE NOW THY SERVANTS SLEEPING.’ The names of the victims of the explosion buried here are leaded into the wall coping, with the names of those buried elsewhere appearing on a large free-standing stone c0.5m to the east, also included in the listing but not mapped.

This List entry has been amended to add sources for War Memorials Online and the War Memorials Register. These sources were not used in the compilation of this List entry but are added here as a guide for further reading, 30 November 2016.

Legacy

The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
438915
Legacy System:
LBS

Sources

Websites
Dover War Memorial Project - Faversham Munitions Workers, accessed 18/02/2016 from http://www.doverwarmemorialproject.org.uk/Casualties/MoreMemorials/Areas/Faversham%20Munitions/Munitions.htm
Roll of Honour, Kent, accessed 18/02/2016 from http://www.roll-of-honour.com/Kent/FavershamExplosion.html
War Memorials Online, accessed 30/11/2016 from https://www.warmemorialsonline.org.uk/memorial/160728
War Memorials Register, accessed 30/11/2016 from http://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/41209

Legal

This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

Images of England

Images of England was a photographic record of every listed building in England, created as a snap shot of listed buildings at the turn of the millennium. These photographs of the exterior of listed buildings were taken by volunteers between 1999 and 2008. The project was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Date: 08 Jul 2002
Reference: IOE01/06996/32
Rights: Copyright IoE Norman Wigg. Source Historic England Archive
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